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Frankenstein: The True Story (Blu-ray Review)

On March 24th, Scream Factory will be releasing the 2-part television mini-series, Frankenstein: The True Story from director Jack Smight. I’ll admit that this is a complete blind spot in my horror knowledge as I’m not even sure I remember this thing existing. I’ve obviously not seen it before. And I’m surprised as much as I’m fond of Jane Seymour and it also stars my favorite Doctor, Tom Baker. But, “new to me” is always a very exciting thing nowadays having experience and studied so much in the way of film and television. While I may scratch my head at how I missed this, I also have glee that I get to experience it. And I get to experience it with a brand new 2K restoration in presentation to go with a new Jane Seymour (Among others) interview. She has to be the queen on the vampires, by the way. As mentioned, this one comes out in just a couple weeks in what is a pretty busy month for big titles for Scream Factory. You can pre-order using the paid Amazon Associates link below.

Film

Directed by Jack Smight (The Twilight Zone, Damnation Alley) and teleplay by Christopher Isherwood (A Single Man, Cabaret) and Don Bachardy, this gruesome, heart-pounding thriller features an incredible cast, including James Mason (Child’s Play, Lolita), Leonard Whiting (Romeo & Juliet), David McCallum (NCIS, The Man from U.N.C.L.E), Jane Seymour (Live and Let Die, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman), Nicola Pagett (An Awfully Big Adventure), Michael Sarrazin (The Sweet Ride, The Outer Limits), and Agnes Moorehead (Bewitched, Citizen Kane). FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY retells Mary Shelley’s unforgettable story. Victor Frankenstein’s medical experiments result in the shocking discovery that he can revive the dead. But when the creature he brings forth becomes a killer, is anyone safe?

In previous reviews of television films of the 1970s, the topic of how different the era for this medium was has been broached but it should be reiterated. While they didn’t have the budgets and production potential of a feature film, made-for-television movies weren’t the super cheap dumpster bin movies they would evolve into later on. Back before cable, there were just the three big networks (CBS, ABC, NBC). And each of them had their movie night. It’d be either something from years ago in theaters, a movie or a mini-series that played like a multipart film. A lot was put into them and the productions were done very seriously. People were actually going to watch these, and watch them as an event as they aired. It was all that was on, it was what would be talked about at the water cooler at work following the Sunday premier to going in for the case of the Mondays. They were important.

Frankenstein: The True Story is a very lavish and big time television movie event. It features some glorious location shooting while having very impressive and almost feature film worthy sets on display. One wouldn’t guess it DIDN’T have a chance at silver screen glory. There are a few up and comers (Jane Seymour hot off of Live and Let Die, Leonard Whiting having come from half the title role in Romeo and Juliet) and old movies stars (James Mason) featured in the movie (As well as a pre-Doctor Who Tom Baker).  Its one of the first times I can recall the story being brought to television. Dracula, as done by Dan Curtis, would show up the next year.

The film opts to hold tighter to the novel than the preceding James Whale film and Hammer iteration had done before (And that Kenneth Branagh would try to accomplish in the 1990s). Where it stands out is its portrayal of the monster. Jack Smight’s film opts to take a different, and more patient route to the violence. They start him out as a handsome lad with the promise and ability to rejoin society as an equal after being raised from the dead. The resurrection slowly backfires as the resurrected becomes more grotesque and barbaric in his response to society’s rejection. The film also features some very subtle homoerotic undertones in the film which appear to be there and explored, albeit in a very subtextual approach.

Being a TV movie doesn’t stop this film from being quite violent, ruthless and even a bit sensual in spots. There are some great scenes of blood, brutal attacks, a leap from a cliff and there’s even a head that gets ripped off from a body. For a TV movie in the 1970s! Heck, there is also some kinda nudity in it. The make-up design for the monster is pretty interesting and truly does its own thing. It may appear more Mr. Hyde-like, coming slowly from a handsome Dr. Jekyll, but its very much all its own. And its pretty gross and repulsive looking even in today’s climate and having seen much more “tough” films that were allowed to do more. You can really understand the reactions and way the public see him. Its more gross than intimidating.

One of the best parts of this film full of moments and top tier performers is Jane Seymour (No, not just because I’ve thought she’s otherworldly beautiful my entire life). She doesn’t show up until the second part, but she is allowed some range and one of the most fun roles in the film. Its a role early in her career and she has herself a lot of fun with it and honestly much more impressive here than her breakout role in Live and Let Die. Seymour utilizes her beauty and allure in both innocence and once she’s revived, very vile and menacing ways. You can’t keep from fixating her when she’s a “monster” and are wanting her to show up in any given scene just to shake things up.

Fascinating it is, seeing all the interpretations and adaptations of Mary Shelley’s novel. Frankenstein: The True Story is one of the better offerings in that account. Its a more soap opera/drama take on it (The route you need to lean on when you’re a TV movie), but it does deliver the goods where need be. The film is well lit, but does provide plenty of daytime horror effectively. This is one that gets it right. There’s a slower pace to it, and the film does take its time, but its built for 2 parts and a break in the middle. And each half plays plenty satisfying separate or together in one.

Video

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

Layers: BD-50

Clarity/Detail: Frankenstein: The True Story has received 2K scan of the original film elements to the 2-part 3 hr. and 6 min in its debut on Blu-ray. Now, while it lists as that run-time, it is clearly defined as 2 parts. They just have not be separated into the ability to select one or the other. Chapters 1-6 encompass part 1 and runs about 90 minutes with its own closing credits and a preview of what is to come in part 2. Chapters 7-13 feature part 2, and has its own Universal logo to open as well as a recap of what you just saw in Part 1.

In terms of picture quality, this looks absolutely terrific. There is a crisp, clear freshness to the look of the film and it seems the materials used for the transfer were in pristine condition. Be it lighter or darker sequences, the details shine through very well with good specifics on the textures, make-up effects and the genuine gothic natural of the architecture and sets. You can see specific cracks, damages or moss growing on the things. Its also a rather sharp picture and it doesn’t appear than any sort of noise reduction or artificial sharpening has been applied or overdosed onto the image.

Depth: This isn’t some crafty three dimensional revelation, but it does carry its moments. Likely, its brought upon due to its shot on film nature. There is a nice well roundedness to the image and really good spacing between the characters and backgrounds with some solid pushback in the interiors that help you feel the surroundings a little more. Movement is smooth and natural with no issues resounding from rapid movements.

Black Levels: Black levels impress pretty well, given it being a TV movie and all. The 2K transfer has done well to keep them in the darker realm, but its still noticeably brighter than your mattes to the left and right. Details stick around quite well no matter the shadows, lighting or color of the surface/fabric/hair you see. No crushing witnessed during this viewing.

Color Reproduction:  This isn’t the most colorful of palettes to be shown on display here as it goes both gothic and period heavy. There are some clothes and fabrics that pop and fair quite well as they need to. Mostly this is just a nice, refined, well saturated collection of the natural grays/blacks/browns and the like. The green grass does come on quite pretty here and blood looks as rich as you’d want it to whenever it appears.

Flesh Tones: Skin tones are natural and consistent from start to finish of the film. Every facial texture is pretty much crystal clear, including make-up lines or brushes. From any reasonable distance you can make up wrinkles, stubble, freckles and plenty more. The creature/gore/effects make-up pops up nicely, looking very natural and showing no weakness of the effects department as it holds up and adds to the overall enjoyment.

Noise/Artifacts: Clean

Audio

Audio Format(s): English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD MA

Subtitles: English SDH

Dynamics: Frankenstein: The True Story carries its original mono track with it. This is just a well mixed presentation that does well with its limitations. You might want to crank it up a little as its more a source thing than it is a disc issue. The sound effects, vocals and score blend quite well and allow one another to take center stage at the appropriate times. The layering and depth in the mix is captured with good ease and showcases a pretty entranced listen given its age and nature of release.

Height: N/A

Low-Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Vocals are everything to this mini-series and they are capture with some good clarity and are plenty loud to carry it on start to finish. Its audible at every turn and always feeling an accurate part of the environment the scene takes place in, never overstepping its bounds.

Extras

Frankenstein: The True Story comes with reversible cover art featuring an alternate (Vintage) design.

Audio Commentary

  • With filmmaker/film historian Sam Irvin

Play With Intro (HD, 5:45) – James Mason hypes up the film you are about to watch as clips play and he visits the incorrect location of Mary Shelley’s final resting place (Though, the tombstone does have her name on it).

Off With Her Head: An Interview With Actress Jane Seymour (HD, 24:16) – She starts from the set of Live and Let Die where she was offered this movie and whisked right to it after that production wrapped. Seymour shares some fangirling she had at this time on the sets and at the premiere of Live and Let Die and working intimately with many people she admired.  Its a bit of a carousel of her relationships with the people on the set of the movies (actors and such) and her little anecdotes and thoughts on them. There’s a phone video that ends this with her and her interviewer (Sam Irvin) going over his past magazine interviews with her.

Victor’s Story: An Interview With Actor Leonard Whiting (HD, 18:25) – The was “purely a professional thing” for him. He screen tested in a church with Nicola Pagett and quickly was given the part after. He’s pretty taken with the producer of the film he considers to be “outrageous” and just grins really big when talking about it. Whiting goes a little bit over Romeo and Juliet experience and compares directors of that and Frankenstein: The True Story. He’s very positive on the film and feels it inspired both the book Interview With A Vampire and the film The Shape of Water.

Frankenstein’s Diary: A Conversation With Writer Don Bachardy (HD, 41:05) – Sam Irvin, who did the first two interviews, has a sit down interview here with the writer of the film. Irvin is “obsessed” with Frankenstein: The True Story, having won a Rondo for an article about the movie. The interview is held in Bachardy’s own art studio. This is a very lengthy and in depth discussion, starting with Bachardy’s genesis on the project through its legacy that is very fascinating and comfortably hit all points you’d want it to.

Summary

Frankenstein: The True Story holds up quite well despite its combined length and age. Its period nature and focus on character and inner drama help to keep it fresh even in today’s climate. Scream Factory have given it a lovely looking transfer for its debut on Blu-ray. There are even new extras that feature three terrific interviews and a nice commentary with probably the best person to lead the charge on the topic of this movie; Sam Irvin. A definite pick up for Frankenstein. classic monster and TV movie fans!

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Writer/Reviewer, lifelong obsessive film nerd. As eager to educate in the world of film as I am to learn. An avid lover of horror, schlock and trash, Brandon hosts the Cult Cinema Cavalcade podcast on the Creative Zombie Studios Network (www.cultcinemacavalcade.com) You can also find more essays on his blog Naptown Nerd (naptownnerd.blogspot.com).

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